I had just finished giving a reading in Long Beach a couple of months ago and was standing a little apart from everyone. It was a hot room, and I’d been wearing a suit and speaking for a long hour, and I think people were giving me a comfortable distance because I am a sweater in the best of times. In the worst, I’m a stick of butter on a hot day.
“So you work at Mt. SAC?” someone said behind me.
I turned to find a close talker – someone who invades your personal space – standing within three fingers’ width of me. He was smiling broadly. He was wearing a purple shirt. He smelled of lavender and foot.
“Yeah,” I said, taking a step back.
He matched my movement, staying close, tinting my sweat with an acrid hint of fear.
“Sam Shepard went to Mt. SAC,” he said.
“Yeah, I know,” I said smiling with the kind of pride I have in Mt. SAC. Sam Shepard if you’ve never heard of him is a fine actor from movies like The Right Stuff, but he’s an even better playwright. He’s one of the greats of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, up there with Stoppard and Neil Simon. “I’ve tried to contact him a couple of times and invite him to talk to the students, but I can never get through to him.”
“Well he’s a busy man.” Purple Shirt scratched his nose loudly somehow.
“He’s a great man.”
“Do you know that Sam Shepard’s first unpublished play is in the archives at Mt. SAC?”
That, I didn’t know. It turns out that Purple Shirt had actually read Shepard’s play. “How was it?”
Purple Shirt exhaled loudly into my face and shrugged in the universal sign of “it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped.”
But that’s to be expected right? When the great man was at Mt. SAC, he was just a student struggling with all the things all eighteen year olds struggle with. He was just starting out as a writer. What made him different? He kept going at his work.
Purple Shirt was disappointed that Sam Shepard wasn’t born a good playwright. After his declaration on the value of Shepard’s first play, he shrugged non-committally and made his way to the free box of wine.
But it gives me great hope that Shepard’s play wasn’t great. I love that he had to work at his craft, and he kept working until he made it great. His life and success is a message, I think, for everyone.